Slums in the sky: Hong Kong rooftop squatters

Slums in the sky: Hong Kong rooftop squatters

Hong Kong's most populous makeshift housing could be right over your head

Hong Kong rooftop slumsTai Kok Tsui's rooftop villages -- easy prey for property developers.It’s a part of Hong Kong you can only see from above: rooftop slums home to tens of thousands of people.

Unable to afford a regular apartment in Hong Kong’s extraordinarily expensive housing market and forced to wait years for a public housing unit, entire families live in illegal shacks on top of the city’s apartment blocks.

There are so many rooftop houses that the government doesn't even bother keeping track of them. According to a spokesman for the Buildings Department, there is no data on illegal rooftop houses or other structures.

“The government doesn't know much about this and they don’t bother to know because they don’t have a rehousing policy for these people,” says social worker Sze Lai-shan, who has worked closely with rooftop dwellers on behalf of the Society for Community Organization, which lobbies the government to provide more public housing.

“They don’t want to make them homeless, so they let them stay.”

The private sector does not share the government’s concerns. Hong Kong’s booming real estate market, coupled with a new policy that makes it easier for developers to acquire old buildings, has led to a spate of redevelopment projects in the city’s working-class neighborhoods, where most rooftop housing is found.

Two years ago, the Hoi On Building in Tai Kok Tsui near Mong Kok in Kowloon was home to more than 100 people living on rooftops, 10 stories above ground. Shacks lined passageways that mimicked the narrow lanes of rural Chinese villages. Some were crudely fashioned out of tin and wood, but many were sturdier, with brick and concrete walls, metal doors and air conditioning units in the windows. Common areas on the roof were filled with drying laundry, potted plants and container gardens.

Among the residents was Yu Wing-hong, a 57-year-old construction worker who lived in a collection of rooms built around the entrance to one of the building’s staircases.

Yu had lived on the roof for three decades; over the years, he built himself a two-story house with a kitchen and bathroom fashioned out of sheet metal. Yu lived on the roof by choice. It was convenient, he said, unlike the public housing unit he was once offered on one of the outlying islands.

“If I have to live on the islands, I'd rather be dead," he says. "I'd have to learn my way around the city again and the transport costs alone would eat up all of my income.” Yu’s sentiment was echoed by many of his neighbors.

One rooftop resident, Hong Kong-born Yim Wong-wing, moved to the roof from Bangkok with his Thai wife and teenage children. The family had been on a waiting list for a public housing unit for more than two years; Yim worried that they would be offered an apartment too far from his children’s school in Kowloon, where they were in a program designed to help ethnic minorities and new immigrants learn Cantonese.

Yim had bought his rooftop house from his brother. Even though rooftop housing is illegal, they are regularly bought, rented and sold on a kind of grey market.

Rooftop houses range in size from nine to 28 square meters, and typically sell for less than HK$50,000, compared to at least HK$1 million for a legal apartment of the same size.

Now the Hoi On Building’s rooftop village is gone. Last year, the building was acquired by a property developer, which evicted all of the remaining rooftop residents.

Most received compensation, ranging from HK$10,000 to $100,000, according to Buildings Department social worker Phoebe Lo, who helped the roof dwellers apply for public housing.

Others refused to leave until two fires ripped through the building, killing one of the residents. The most recent fire, which occurred last June, was declared suspicious by firefighters. Police have since launched an arson investigation.

The Yim family, spooked by the fires, was the last to leave the rooftop. Yu found another place to live in Tai Kok Tsui. Lo hasn’t heard from many of the other residents since they left.

“If they got public housing, their living conditions will be better, if not, they might not be as good as on the roof,” she says.

With 300,000 people waiting for public housing and just 15,000 new units built every year, most roof dwellers have to downgrade to cubicle homes and cage homes when they are kicked off their roof.

“We’ve found many people living in cubicle homes inside industrial buildings,” says Sze Lai-shan. There’s just one solution, she says: “Hong Kong needs a better housing policy.”

Hong Kong rooftop slumsIllegal rooftop dwellers get a "million-dollar view" of luxury property.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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